With so many dangers existing in the wider solar system from asteroids, the European Space Agency (ESA) is attempting to ensure our future survival with a planetary defence system due for testing in 2020.
The mission will for part of the ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) whose original goal is to investigate the possibilities of future deep space missions which will attempt to land another craft on a comet’s surface for the first time since Philae touched down on Comet 67p last November.
Due to be launched in October 2020, the AIM craft will travel to a binary asteroid system – the paired Didymos asteroids, which will come a comparatively close 11m km to Earth in 2022 and will land on the smaller 187m-wide asteroid moon which has been dubbed 'Didymoon'.
Two or more CubeSats will then be dispatched from the original craft to gather other scientific data in the vicinity of the moon.
Altering the dynamics of the solar system
The AIM mission will form part of a wider ESA/NASA mission known as AIDA – Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment – which is the first real test for astronomers to see how we could potentially deal with a future asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
NASA’s part of the mission will see its the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, probe approach the binary system around the same time as AIM, and then crash itself straight into the asteroid moon at about 6 km/s.
A graphic of AIM approaching the Didymos binary system. Image via ESA–Science Office
“The results will allow laboratory impact models to be calibrated on a large-scale basis, to fully understand how an asteroid would react to this kind of energy,” said Ian Carnelli, managing the mission for ESA. “This will shed light on the role the eject plume will play – a fundamental part in the energy transfer and under scientific debate for over two decades.”
This will mark the first time that humanity has significantly altered the dynamics of the solar system.
Speaking of its defence capabilities, Carnelli added, “It will also give us a baseline for planning any future planetary defence strategies. We will gain insight into the kind of force needed to shift the orbit of any incoming asteroid, and better understand how the technique could be applied if a real threat were to occur.”